u Notes from the Underground: <i>No god but God</i>

No god but God

Monday, May 29, 2006

That is the name of the book I'm currently reading, and it is subtitled "The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam" (Amazon link). I am through some 100 pages, and it has been a revelatory and exhilaratingly easy read upto now. It never entered my mind that it might be available in India, and it was almost by accident that I saw this book in Walden, the bookshop right next to my office, during my weekly browsing. Finding this book made me happy enough to buy Hinduism, by Kshiti Mohan Sen, a book I'd been thinking of buying but was somewhat reluctant to buy (I'll come to that later hopefully).

The one thing that was again driven home to me in my reading thus far is how insignificant scriptures are when compared to the people who actually interpret them. No matter what the scriptures say, the "real" religion is determined by the exegetes. The interpreters themselves are, ofcourse, motivated by their own material incentives.

Let me explain through a series of excerpts from the book:
Perhaps nowhere was [Prophet] Muhammad's struggle for economic redistribution and social egalitarianims more evident than in the rights and privileges he bestowed upon the women in his community. Beginning with the unbiblical conviction that men and women were created together and simultaneously from a single cell (4:1, 7:189), the Quran goes to great lengths to emphasize the equality of the sexes in the eyes of God:

God offers forgiveness and a great reward,
For men who surrender to Him, and women who surrender to Him,
For men who believe, and women who believe,
For men who obey, and women who obey,
For men who speak the truth, and women who speak the truth,
For men who persevere, and women who persevere,
For men who are humble, and women who are humble,
For men who give alms, and women who give alms,
For men who fast, and women who fast,
For men who are modest, and women who are modest,
For men who remember God, and women who remember God.(33:35)

At the same time, the Quran acknoweledges that men and women have distinct and separate roles in society; it would have been preposterous to claim otherwise in seventh-century Arabia. Thus, "men are to take care of women, because God has given them greater strength, and because men use their wealth to provide for them" (4:34).

With a few notable exceptions (like Khadija [Muhammad's wife]), women in pre-Islamic Arabia could neither own property nor inherit it from their husbands. Actually, a wife was herself considered property, and both she and her dowry would be inherited by the male heir of her deceased husband.

However, Muhammad - who had benefited greatly from the wealth and stability provided by Khadija - strove to give women the opportunity to attain some level of equality and idnependence in society by amending Arabia's traditional marriage and inheritance laws in order to remove the obstacles that prohibited women from inheriting and maintaining their own wealth. While the exact changes Muhammad made to this tradition are far too complex to discuss in detail here, it is sufficient to note that women in the Ummah [the first Islamic community Muhammad founded in Medina] were, for the first time, given the right both to inherit the property of their husbands and to keep their dowries as their own personal property throughout their marriage. Muhammad also forbade a husband to touch his wife's dowry, forcing him instead to provide for his family from his own wealth. [..]

The chapter goes on in this vein, explaining the reforms Muhammad instituted in his drive for a more equal and just community. Judged in the context of the society Muhammad was born into, the reforms he was calling for were nothing short of revolutionary.
[..], Muhammad clearly accepted polygyny (within limits) as necessary for the survival of the Ummah, especially after the war resulted in hundreds of widows and orphans who had to be provided for and protected by the community. "Marry those women who are lawful who are you, up to two, three, or four," the Quran states, "but only if you can treat them all equally (4:3; emphasis added). On the other hand, the Quran makes it clear that monogamy is the preferred model of marriage when it asserts that "no matter how you try, you will never be able to treat your wives equally (4:129; again, emphasis added). [..] Essentially, while the individual believer was to strive for monogamy, the community that Muhammad was trying to build in Yathrib would have been doomed without polygyny.

And yet, how was the Quran interpreted, in the years after Muhammad's death?
It would be no exaggeration, therefore, to say that quite soon after Muhammad's death, those men who took upon themselves the task of interpreting God's will in the Quran - men who were, coincidentally, among the most powerful and wealthy members of the Ummah - were not nearly as concerned with the accuracy of their reports or the objectivity of their exegesis as they were with regaining the financial and social dominance that the Prophet's reforms had taken from them. [..]

Thus, when the Quran warned believers not to "pass on your wealth and property to the feeble-minded(sufaha)," the early Quranic commentators - all of them male - declared, despite the Quran's warnings on the subject, that " the sufaha are women and children .. and both of them must be excluded from inheritance(emphasis added).

When a wealthy and notable merchant from Basra named Abu Bakra claimed, twenty-five years after Muhammad's death, that he once heard the Prophet say "Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity," his authority as a Companion was unquestioned.


And finally, when the celebrated Quranic commentatory Fakhr ad Din ar-Razi interpreted the verse "[God] created spouses for you of your own kind so that you may have peace of mind through them" (30:21) as "proof that women were created like animals and plants and other useful things [and not for] worship and carrying the Divine commands ... because the woman is weak, silly, and in one sense like a child," his commentary became (and still is) one of the most widely respected in the Muslim world.

The fact is that for fourteen centuries, the science of Quranic commentary has been the exclusive domain of Muslim men. And because each one of these exegetes inevitably brings to the Quran his own ideology and his own preconceived notions, it should not be surprising to learn that certain verses have most often been read in their most misogynist interpretation.

Ponder on that for a few moments as I rest my knuckles.

[Now its time for some Randian rhetoric.]

However, one cannot always blame vested interests for institutionalised oppression such as this. The explanation that one group oppressed because it could derive benefit out of it is true, but insufficient. The bigger factor is the unquestioning believer, he who considers tradition superior to reason, and who is obedient to authority figures, because God is the ultimate authority figure and he fears God. All institutions that have authority as their core element - authority that is "legitimate" because they've been elected by people, or legitimate because it is "granted by God" - will result in oppression, unless that authority is constantly countervailed by skepticism and cultural norms that emphasize the individual's rights and responsibility to fashion one's own morality and life.


At 9:01 PM, June 22, 2006, Blogger Lalbadshah said...

I feel obligatory to comment on this and this obligation, Im sure, is quite evident.

Firstly, Kudos! I have tremendous amount of respect for anyone who actually attempts to understand Islam, no matter what the source, in an age where it is quite fashionable to lament on the poor status of women in Islam.

Secondly, I agree with the fact that Islam and any religion for that matter has been subject to various interpretations.

But I must say that actually the most famous translation of Islam is actually by a renowned scholar call Yusuf Ali. Try finding out more about if you can. Its an excellent read and has been recommended by most Islamic countries as the best source of Quranic translation.

I must also tell you that God mentions in Quran itself, that He has given man the ability to differenciate between the right and the wrong. Man is meant to make his decisions using his own common sense, in the light of the knowledge provided by the Quran. But I guess, like you said, scriptures don't make such an impact as they should do. Instead, illiterate people from far off villages making arbit decisions about Talaq said thrice in a row on the same day make front page headlines.

I personally feel that awareness of religious scriptures actually gives you more freedom rather than tying you down to tradition. For tradition, although predominantly based on religion, has mutated more than evolved in all ages. Its a shame.

At 11:46 PM, June 22, 2006, Anonymous Venu said...

Thanks for the comment, Al. I am not aware of Yusuf Ali, and I dont particularly remember him being mentioned in the book. Will keep your recommendation in mind.

I agree with your point about knowledge of scripturs liberating people from tradition. Unfortunately, even here, dogma makes access to scriptures tough. In Islam, for example, I think there was an injunction against translating the Quran from Arabic for long, as it was considered to be God's speech and hence immutable. (Even otherwise, it is said that you cant truly understand the Quran unless you read it in the original.) This restricted knowledge of Quran only to the few with the time and money to learn Arabic and these were invariably rich men. Similarly, in Hindu society, nobody apart from the brahmins were allowed to learn the Vedas. Such elitism of mainstream religion is partly what led to the great popularity of devotionalist movements such as the Sufi and the Bhakti movements - indeed, thanks to the Bhakti movement, today's Hinduism is worlds removed from Vedic Hinduism.


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